SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Bill Gates is one of the wealthiest men in the planet. And now, as co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest charity, he has turned his attention to education. In the past, the foundation has devoted its considerable resources to some of the world's most intractable problems, including diseases, like polio and malaria. Bill Gates has spoken out recently about teacher evaluations and other issues. He joins us from his offices in Seattle. And we want to remind our listeners, the Gates Foundation is a contributor to NPR News. Mr. Gates, thanks for being with us.
BILL GATES: Great to talk to you.
SIMON: This is occasion by the fact that the New York State Court of Appeals ruled recently that teachers' individual performance evaluations could be made public. In The New York Times, you called that a big mistake. Why?
GATES: Well, the goal is to help teachers be better. And when we run personnel systems where we want to be frank with employees about where they need to improve, having that be publicly available is not conducive to openness and a free exchange of views.
SIMON: Can you understand the thinking of some parents who think, well, you know, we ought to be able to know this information so we can make intelligent judgments and assessments about our children's education?
GATES: Simply turning the whole public school system into something where all of the parents are competing to get their kids into certain classes, that's very much a zero-sum thing, comparing to giving teachers honest feedback, having examples of teachers who do things well and raising the average capability.
SIMON: What about the prominence of test scores? Because isn't that in the end what a lot of systems, and for that matter parents, care about?
GATES: Well, in our view, if the evaluation is primarily based on test scores, it's going to have several problems. First of all, it's not going to be that diagnostic. That is it's not going to tell the teacher which part of their practice they need to focus on. And the classroom observations and the student feedback tend to do that a lot better. The test needs to be there for math and science just as a gauge to understand, you know, are these kids available to advance? And what we need to do is get serious about all the components of evaluation. Helping teachers know how to be better is certainly one of the best investments we can make.
SIMON: Do you think you learned something from the evaluation processes that you had in place at Microsoft that might be pertinent here?
GATES: Certainly if we didn't have evaluation, if we simply used seniority or degree status as how we paid people at Microsoft, it wouldn't have worked at all, because there wasn't a strong correspondence between seniority or even degrees and who was writing the best software.
SIMON: Did you have an inspiring teacher or two or three?
GATES: Well, I had a lot of great teachers. I went to - after seventh grade - to a private school called Lakeside. Had a lot of great math and science teachers. So, yeah, my success was due to having a great education.
SIMON: What did they do? What kind of fire did they kindle inside of you?
GATES: Well, a lot of it's that they encourage you that you can learn, that they create an environment of expectation where you get stock, you're supposed to put more energy into it. They were able to connect to my curiosity, able to, you know, spend time with me when I was confused. I was very lucky.
SIMON: I have to ask you, Mr. Gates, we did a profile of Microsoft, I guess way back in the late 1980s. You were under some criticism then for not being as active philanthropically as some of the founders of other great fortunes, like say the Rockefellers or the Carnegies. You know, you were called single-minded. And I remember you said to us in the interview, you said, look, we don't want to just write a lot of checks to different places. We want to wait until we can bring to bear the kind of resources that can make some kind of major difference. Now that you are doing that, was it necessary for you to be single-minded during those years to make a difference now?
GATES: Yeah. In the '80s, I'd only given tens of millions. And so I guess you can compare that to others. Microsoft itself was incredibly philanthropic in terms of matching employee gifts, you know, being the highest per person giving to United Way. But in terms of really picking a problem and getting to know it, Microsoft value increased because of that focus. And so, now I'm able to put literally billions into these tough problems.
SIMON: Well, but not to put too fine a point on that. Was it necessary, with the advantage of hindsight, for you to be single-minded during the '80s and '90s so you could do this now, at the scale you're doing it?
GATES: Well, as I said, I gave away many tens of millions of dollars. So I don't know what...
SIMON: You weren't sitting on your hands.
GATES: ...you'd call that. And I didn't give away a high percentage of my wealth until it was actually the year 2000. I would have been 45 when I gave $20 billion to the foundation. And so, I admire people like Mark Zuckerberg who are getting involved in giving substantial gifts even in their late 20's. That's earlier than I got started with giving hundreds of millions.
SIMON: Mr. Gates, thank you so much for your time.
GATES: Thank you.